Opinion

Honour Mandela by showing more backbone, Cyril, especially when the Zulu king throws a tantrum

Nelson Mandela, had he lived, would be turning 100 on Wednesday and various activities have been arranged to mark the occasion

15 July 2018 - 00:00
By Barney Mthombothi
The writer implores President Cyril Ramaphosa to show more backbone.
Image: ALON SKUY The writer implores President Cyril Ramaphosa to show more backbone.

Nelson Mandela, had he lived, would be turning 100 on Wednesday and various activities have been arranged to mark the occasion. The hottest ticket in town is undoubtedly Barack Obama, who will deliver the annual lecture in memory of the great man on Tuesday.

That will be the place to be seen, even for those without a political bone in their bodies. South Africa, even in its current tattered and dilapidated state, continues to bask in Mandela's reflected glory.

The activities honouring Mandela come immediately after Youth Month, which is dedicated to the concerns and opinions of our young people. Adults, like the obedient parent in the new South Africa, tend to take a back seat; we are supposed to leave the stage to the young people to express their hopes for the future, even their naivety and ignorance. It's often said that the youth should have a bigger say in how the country is run, because, after all, the future belongs to them. That's not just a cop-out; it's rank cowardice. But lack of courage seems to be the defining feature of our times.

The prevailing view that the youth should be the sole authors of our future - and everybody else should just shut up and listen - coincides with the campaign to almost vilify Mandela by people who were not even born when he walked out of prison. The fact that things have taken a turn for the worse is all because of him, apparently. People don't seem to accept the argument that Mandela - and his comrades - laid the foundation and that it is up to us to finish the job of building the house.

No, the foundation was faulty, and that's why the country's in a mess, goes the argument. It's that simple. Forget the incompetence and corruption that came after Mandela had left the stage. A man who gave his life to the struggle is now the villain of the piece. And very few speak up against such twaddle.

It's incredible now to think that for the time he was in prison, hardly anyone in the world knew what he looked like. Publication of his picture was banned, as was publication of his views. But the international campaign to release him and his comrades turned him into a cult figure.

The biggest concern for many of his followers at the time was whether Mandela, once released, would be able to live up to the huge expectations. He did.

Now, as then, the country seems to be facing the same challenges. Drums of war are being beaten again. In April 1994, three weeks before the first democratic elections, Mandela met King Goodwill Zwelithini, Mangosuthu Buthelezi and the then-president FW de Klerk in Skukuza. The meeting, amid fighting between the IFP and the ANC, was a last-ditch effort to persuade the IFP to take part in the elections. Then, as now, Zwelithini threatened to secede.

It was in reality Buthelezi's words coming out of the king's mouth.

Zwelithini is up to his old tricks again. A few days ago he threatened war and secession should the government take away his beloved Ingonyama Trust

"We here today proclaim before the world our freedom and sovereignty and our unwavering will to defend it at all costs," King Zwelithini told Mandela. "Whether we end up as part of one federal state or as a completely autonomous state will depend on what you and others in South Africa do to me and my people."

Mandela, who was not even president at the time, held firm. Eight days before the polls, the IFP agreed to take part in them. The party has been in decline ever since.

Zwelithini is up to his old tricks again. A few days ago he threatened war and secession should the government take away his beloved Ingonyama Trust. And he's had better luck this time. Hardly 48 hours after issuing the threats, the president of the country had dropped everything to go and placate the Zulu king. Zwelithini had every reason to be happy. He got what he wanted: the Ingonyama Trust is sacrosanct.

I hope President Cyril Ramaphosa did not crawl on his belly, as is the custom, at his first sighting of the king, before offering his apologies. But the cheerful readiness to heed Zwelithini's outbursts is concerning. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth. That's not how our president should behave or be treated; summoned like a little boy or a messenger.

We might as well shred the constitution, sack the government and the judiciary and move all the trappings of power to Nongoma, Ulundi or wherever Zwelithini happens to be in residence. The president seems to be at his beck and call. He is the country's absolute ruler, isn't he? South Africa is a monarchy.

It is outrageous that the president should quiver at a rebuke by a tribal potentate. South Africa is not only a democracy; it's a republic, which means supreme power lies with the people and their elected representatives, not with a monarch.

Does Ramaphosa understand that as president he doesn't represent his own jacket or his party, but that he stands for the honour and the very essence of this nation? Now that Zwelithini is aware that threats work, he'll do it again, knowing Ramaphosa will come running with a white flag. The president's foes, inside and outside the party, have also taken note. And if he can't stand up to a local chief, how can he be trusted to conduct business with foreign heads of state?

Ramaphosa has said he wants to run the country the way Mandela used to. Mandela was not a weakling. He could be humble and gracious, but he stood his ground and could be ruthless when circumstances called for it.

Ramaphosa, when confronted by stiff challenges, should ask himself a simple question: what would Mandela do? Otherwise indecision - kicking the can down the road - could well be his downfall.